A Lesson in Japanese Culture: It’s Not a Souvenir, It’s an Omiyage!

A Lesson in Japanese Culture: It's Not a Souvenir, It's an Omiyage!

–People have been responding really well to a lot of my articles on Japanese culture. Since Japan is a country that fascinates many people, myself included, and my degree is in Japanese culture, I’ve decided to write a series of posts delving a bit deeper into the culture than what most people would see when merely traveling through the country.

Learning Japanese in university, one of the first words I was taught was omiyage (お土産). Back then I was told that omiyage meant ‘souvenir’ but let me assure you– omiyage is not a mere souvenir.

If you’ve been to Japan, surely you’ve seen them before, tourist shops everywhere filled with enticing boxes of local sweets that are all packaged individually inside a nice, large pre-gift wrapped box. These are omiyage.


The tradition of gift-giving permeates Japanese culture. Usually goods are associated with the a specific region, such as yubari melon from Hokkaido or green tea products from Kyoto, but regional omiyage deserve an article of its own.

In Japan, it is very easy to pick up omiyage a moment’s notice. You’ll find shops in airports, in train stations and even on the street selling omiyage already beautifully wrapped, ready to give. Because, kind of like lai see in Chinese culture, it is very bad form to be caught off-guard without something to give. It’s omiyage that oils the cogs of Japanese society.

Unlike a souvenir, omiyage are not kept for yourself, and they are not meant to mean you were thinking of someone while you were away. This is not to be confused with gift-giving in Japan, that’s a whole ‘nother intimidating ballgame. In regards to omiyage, you have no choice on whether you’d like to bring something back for others, it’s an obligation.

Living in Japan, every time I went on a trip– even if it was a simple field trip for school, upon return my host family would all gather around the kitchen table, waiting to see what omiyage had made the trip back with me.

Osaka - 2011

Even during the trips themselves, our school staff would bluntly remind us, don’t forget to buy omiyage, as our bus pulled into the parking lot. 

Between the special mochi from Ise, the tins of cookies from Disneyland, and special products from Hong Kong, my bank account cried. Spending US $20 here, $20 there; traveling and exploring Japan was becoming more of a hassle as I immediately fretted over what omiyage to purchase.

Before I had even set foot in Japan, I was searching for omiyage to give upon my arrival.

So if you’re reading this about to study abroad in Japan or about to participate in the JET Program– yes, you do need to buy omiyage representing your home country to give to your new host family or coworkers in Japan. Don’t expect to be excused because you are a foreigner, because you won’t be, and it will put a damper on your relationships.

So now that we’ve covered the basics, here are 5 rules for omiyage etiquette:

1. The best omiyage is something you can eat


Individually packaged caramel Tokyo Banana

Despite Japan being a decent sized country, over 70 percent of it is covered in mountains and uninhabited, so space is limited. Don’t burden people by giving them gifts that take up even more space.

Instead give them food. Almost every region of the world specializes in some sort of delicacy, so bring that as your omiyage. Did you just come from Canada? Great! Bring some maple syrup back. Italy? How about some balsamic vinegar? Germany? Beer!  

You get my point?

Why do you think Japan loves to sell mangos that cost US $100 a pop, or US $300 cube-shaped watermelons? Because they make great gifts.


$200 mangoes? Wrapped and ready to give as omiyage

Also, it is important to note that food items should be individually wrapped. Especially in the workplace, make it easy for others to quickly grab one item for themselves. Don’t put out a bowl of communal candy you bought expecting others to help themselves to however much they’d like– no one will take any.

2. The appearance of the gift is just as important as the gift itself

Osaka - 2011

Sweetly packaged Pikachu cookies

When you buy omiyage in Japan, everything will always come gift wrapped for you. But if you’re buying gifts from outside Japan, make sure that everything is beautifully wrapped before presenting it to the recipients.

So unless you are a professional gift wrapper yourself, pay to have this done.

This is also true of all gift-giving in Japan.

3. Brand names are always good

If you can’t go the food route, your next best bet is something with a well-known label on it. So whether it’s makeup, perfume, or even luxury scarves and bags, the more well-known the name, the better the item will be received.

4. Home-made is bad, but made in your home country is good.


It might be your favorite dish back home, but that doesn’t make it a good omiyage

I don’t care if your grandma makes the best darn strudel with a recipe handed down eight generations that all your friends have asked for. Do not give homemade items as omiyage.

With that being said, things that represent you or your home are good. Kind of like the regional food delicacy idea, except without the food. If you visit a region known for a particular handicraft or item it makes a good omiyage. Think clogs from Holland or a matryoshka doll from Russia.

Or, if you’re coming from your hometown or country, something that represents that is good. When I first arrived in Japan one of the things I brought were t-shirts for my younger host sisters from my university back home.


Wearing the Illini t-shirts I gave them

5. Never give something that was ‘Made in Japan’

Of course if you’re traveling to other prefectures in Japan, this is okay. But if you’re coming from other countries, do not give items that are made or found in Japan.

I don’t care how rad you think the gift is, if you look at the label and see that it was actually outsourced to Japan, don’t buy it. Even if it’s a t-shirt saying I ♥ New York, if it says “Made in Japan” anywhere on the tag, it’s a no-go.


Let’s Pin It!

souvenir-omiyage-pin  omiyage-pin2



How about YOU?
What do you think about this Japanese custom?


  • Tania says:

    Okay, I have a question I am moving to Japan to teach English and I know I have to bring Omiyage but…. How do I know how much to bring I will be teaching so do I need to bring something for all the other teachers, my boss, my landloard and neighbors…? and what to bring I am from a small town in Kansas not much special in this town. HELP Please

  • Caitlyn says:

    Great post, if not a little overwhelming :-) I live in Okinawa and it’s apparent that gifts are a big deal. I am so glad I found your site, I will be back for more much needed info!

  • Adanna says:

    This was such an informative post. I’ve never travelled to Japan but I would love to in the future. I will keep these tips in mind. I would of thought that it would be okay to bring a dish that I made from my country but it’s good to know not too. I love the fact that they sell packaged gifts.

  • Kristen says:

    I have a friend who is living in Japan right now, teaching. ( she is also from Illinois. She showed a bunch of these on her Facebook Page a few weeks ago. These are super cute, I bet a lot of people bring these home after visiting Japan. I like the one with the little Pokemon character on it.

    • Beth Williams says:

      That’s awesome that another Illini is in Japan right now! :)
      I bet she has some great photos!

  • The Japanese culture is so amazing!! I love reading about all the traditions and customs. I hope to be able to visit their country one day and see it firsthand. I never would have guessed at this gift customs.

  • This was so interesting to learn about the culture, and I was really surprised that homemade gifts were a no no. It’s really amazing all of the different cultures around the world. I find Japan’s cultures to be intriguing.

  • This was a great post. I always enjoy learning about different cultures. I have tried some Japanese dishes before and they were amazing. I am upset that the restaurant shut down because it was one of my favorite places to go out to eat.

  • Jeanine says:

    Very interesting, I had no idea. I’m always curious about other cultures. I don’t think I could afford this myself, but I get the idea of it and I think it’s really nice. More so follow suit, but I doubt that would happen. I absolutely enjoyed reading this, especially learning something new about Japan!

    • Beth Williams says:

      It gets so expensive! I’m glad I no longer live in a country where this is mandatory :)

  • My husband has been to Japan so many times when he was still in active duty and he brought us so many cute little things from there. I also have a friend who live there who send us Japanese stuff that I love. Japan is one beautiful country rich of culture and history.

  • rochkirstin says:

    Is the lai see the red envelope that contains money as a gift in the Chinese culture? Sure, Japanese culture and gift-giving sound interesting. It’s really best to give something that can be eaten as omiyage as most people will appreciate food.

  • I love reading about other cultures and customs. The Japanese souvenirs are so cute. When we travel I always buy something to bring back to everyone.

    • Beth Williams says:

      I think the souvenirs there are just adorable! I always try to bring some back for people as well.

  • Nancy says:

    I’m definitely not going to Japan anytime soon – although it’s definitely on my bucket list. I’m heading out to my very first experience at a Japanese Restaurant here in San Jose this weekend. I’m super excited to see what kind of food is on the menu as … I’ve never really experienced it before.

    I wonder if Japantown (apparently it’s 1 of 3 remaining historical Japantown’s left in the USA) has these little treats??? They look really nice.

    I don’t know why giving something “made in Japan” is a no go? Can you explain that a little more?

    • Beth Williams says:

      Actually, if you go to the Japan Center in Japantown, they do have an omiyage shop! You’d be able to try many of these. It’s right in the center of the mall I believe (go in the doors right outside of the Peace Pagoda).

      I’ll be heading there in April again to check it out!

      And if you’re coming from another country, it’s bad to give them a gift they can already get in their country! I guess just because it’s easy to acquire? Of course if you’re traveling within Japan, something from Japan is perfectly fine as an omiyage– you just have to make sure it’s from the region you visited!

  • This is seriously some good information. I would love to visit Japan. Now I highly doubt I ever will but the culture seems so amazing and this is new to me! I have never even heard of this before! I am going to reach out to a friend of mine as she lived in Japan for a few years and see what she may have done. I love learning about other cultures and their traditions! I seriously can’t wait to see what else you come up with!

    • Beth Williams says:

      Glad I could teach you a bit about Japanese culture! It’s such an interesting culture, isn’t it?

  • rebecca says:

    I love the idea of this series! great post! I am moving to Japan soon in order to experience the culture as much as possible! keep these posts coming! :-)

    • Beth Williams says:

      Totally jealous that you’re moving to Japan! What area will you be living in?
      I’m hoping to go back soon as well :)

  • Hi Beth,

    Really enjoyed reading your post about Japanese culture.

    You might also like our post about Asian culture in general, about what Asians secretly believe to be true.. http://wp.me/p4zxKG-x


    Beatrix from Local Culture Guide

  • Wow, I’m not sure I could afford so many gifts! So interesting to learn more about Japanese culture! I feel like I learn so much reading your posts Beth!

    • Beth Williams says:

      Thanks Charli! Glad I could teach people a little more about Japanese culture and customs :)

  • zoomingjapan says:

    Omiyage might sound like a nice idea, but if you live in Japan and have a lot of co-workers, then it can become a burden. You are supposed to bring something and it can become quite expensive.
    Or you just don’t tell ANYBODY that you went somewhere.

    Japan has a lot of customs like that where you’re supposed to give something to people even though you don’t feel like it. Another example is the “giri choco” (duty chocolate) on Valentine’s Day. (T___T) …

    • Beth Williams says:

      Yeah, all the obligation gifts started to make my wallet cry! Each time I went out my host family assumed I would bring something back, and I couldn’t hide that I was traveling from them ;)

  • Jenna says:

    So interesting to learn about the gift giving culture in Japan–it seems so overwhelming! I would have never thought about the made in Japan part, but I guess it makes sense. I think opting for food gifts seems easiest!

    • Beth Williams says:

      I agree! Even now I find most of my souvenirs are edible goodies for all my friends and family back home.

  • Kate says:

    Do the mangoes come with a side of gold?! That is very expensive. I love hearing about Japanese culture and I’ve read a few books like Memoirs of a Geisha and I find it so interesting. I’d be so scared I did something wrong, there seem to be a lot of rules. Great post and photos. I’ll look forward to reading more :)

  • Very interesting lesson; I couldn’t imagine spending $200 on fruit just to give away though! But I do like the idea of Omiyage, especially when it concerns getting food. ;-)

    • Beth Williams says:

      Japan has some pretty unique snacks too, so it was always fun to see what others brought back!

  • I love reading posts like this where you learn something completely new! I have to admit that many times I read Asian based posts and my interest levels are not particularly high, probably because I have yet to venture there but as soon as I started reading this I was intrigued to find out more about the concept of omiyage.

    I think the idea that the best gifts are food based is particularly interesting but unsurprising really. We all love food right and what better way to bring back a gift that something unique from that country :) But $100+ a pop for a mango – wow, there must be something special about that.

    This is an awesome post and I am really glad that I have learned about the key differences between what the majority of us would refer to as souvenirs but the correct term of course being omiyage!

    • Beth Williams says:

      Thanks for your comment Chris, and I’m glad you could learn something new. I think omiyage culture is pretty unique to Japan, and so many people have no idea about it!

      I’m still curious to try some of those mangoes though!

  • wow. I guess you learn something new. Then again if I go back home and give something that was made in my home country I am bound to get the side eye so I totally see where they are coming from with point number 5.

    • Beth Williams says:

      It’s true. I guess if someone went on a vacation and brought me something back that I could easily buy anywhere, I would be a bit disappointed!

  • Pablo says:

    Wild to see what some customs are in other countries! I’ll have to prepare my wallet before I go. haha

  • This was a really interesting post! Keeping cultural norms in mind and respecting them is so important when traveling or living abroad. I had never about this custom,though. I guess it’s great if you’re on the receiving end but can get pricey if you are on the other side!

    • Beth Williams says:

      I agree that it’s important to keep cultural norms in mind! I’ve known a lot of travelers that just play the “I’m a foreigner” card to get out of having to know these things.

  • I got a lot of similar food gifts while I was teaching in Taiwan, I’d try and eat them because otherwise I’d feel bad, but sometimes they were awful. A student gave me fish candy once, never try it!!

  • I love to read the cultural traits of other nations. Japan is full of these cultural diversities&traditions. It is like I found a treasure box in here. Very nice, detailed article, pleasure to read and digest. Well-done and well-read! Many thanks.

  • Gabor Kovacs says:

    Great insight into Japanese culture. Probably the part I was really surprised about is that home-made is not considered a good omiyage, in Europe it’s always the best present you can give:)

    • Beth Williams says:

      In the US too, a special emphasis is placed in home-made gifts! In Japan home-made is okay as a normal gift, but not okay as a ‘souvenir’.

  • jennifer says:

    I want a square watermelon! And some green tea Kit Kats. I guess I best get myself to japan.

    it is very interesting to read about the customs. I live in NYC so I second the “no gifts that take up space” rule. That’s for sure!

    • Beth Williams says:

      I think all the tiny watermelons and square ones are so cute! Although I would never pay for one.

      I can imagine not wanting more stuff when living in expensive cities like NYC as well!

  • Jules says:

    It’s always fascinating to hear the background of cultural customs. Thanks for the insight. Looking forward to the next articles.

    • Beth Williams says:

      I think so too. Culture is something I’ve always been really passionate about!
      Thanks for commenting Jules :)

  • clay weir says:

    it’s always great to learn these bits of local info for when you ever visit the country…great article, thanks!!

  • Aaron says:

    Wow interesting!, Japan is still on my to do list and it looks amazing. I love mango but $200!, wow that had better taste pretty darn good.

    Keep up the good work

    • Beth Williams says:

      What I would give (apart from $200) to know what the mango tasted like! There’s no way we could have afforded that, but we did cave and try a $10 strawberry! A-MAZ-ING!

  • Charlotte says:

    When I went on JET I took with me tea, especially Twinings tea. They have this great range of green tea and fruit blends, so it was great to show them how we have their national drink, and also they are individually wrapped which is always very important.

    • Beth Williams says:

      That’s a great gift idea!
      I applied to JET after graduation, but turned it down to come to HK. I think I’m going to be applying this year though since I really miss Japan!
      How did you like it?

  • One of my Japanese friends explained this to me in high school since she took “souvenir” and gift giving very seriously. It’s so interesting but Japanese culture is fascinating! I would love a little Pikachu gift box :D

    • Beth Williams says:

      I was so tempted to buy that Pikachu box (it had cookies inside)… inside I actually went for one of Eevee! haha :)

  • You’ve definitely enlightened me about this gift giving custom in Japan. I especially loved the tip about wrapping!

    • Beth Williams says:

      The wrapping applies to normal gift giving as well, not just omiyage. I think I’ll be writing a whole separate post on normal gift giving as there are even more rules involved!

  • Margherita says:

    Great post, really interesting info! Love your work

    • Beth Williams says:

      Thanks for commenting Margherita, I really appreciate it and am glad you found the article interesting!

  • Very cool post! I’ve been to Japan and I’ve seen the boxes that I never knew the story behind it :)!

    • Beth Williams says:

      Thanks Manouk! Maybe if you return you’ll have to pick some up to bring back for people ;)

  • I really love the Gashapon (toys that come in a small capsule), everytime I saw one of those machines I had the urge to obtain one haha

  • This is a super informative article! I knew about omiyage before but didn’t know all of the details. Thanks for sharing!

    • Beth Williams says:

      There are so many details to be aware of, it almost starts to become even more stressful! haha.

  • I love your articles about Japan, as I’m one of these people who is really into visiting Japan! Good to know such helpful things! It is a bit like in Iran….you should always enter someone house with a box of sweets!

  • Jen says:

    I bought some of this when I was in Japan last year as gifts for some people at work. Mostly green tea flavoured and they were like paper thin cake rolled into a scroll. The receivers if my gifts said they were delish! I wish I had bought one for myself now.

    • Beth Williams says:

      Anything green tea flavored sure sounds delish! Yeah, the dilemma of omiyage is wanting to eat them yourself!

  • Anna says:

    So true! I totally know what you mean, especially about the brand names. I’m from China and it’s the same way too… can’t show up empty-handed. Every time I go there to visit, I stress for a few months beforehand on what to buy for everyone I’ll be seeing/meeting!

    And yes, keep the Japanese culture posts coming :)

    • Beth Williams says:

      I think China takes brand names to a whole new extreme compared to Japan! haha
      All the expensive areas in HK are always filled with tourists from China coming to shop on the weekends. :)

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